Tag Archives: Columbia Journalism Review

Fake News Trumps True News

Boston Globe fake news page.
The Boston Globe publishes fake news as an editiorial-page spoof in April, 2016.

By Casey Bukro

Fake news might have proved more interesting to readers than the factual stuff.

This sobering thought has churned angst over whether social-media falsehoods contributed to Donald Trump’s presidential victory, not to mention whether the upset win could have been foreseen.

News consumers tend to believe reports that support their personal beliefs — an effect that psychologists call confirmation bias. People like to believe they’re right. In the election run-up, they clicked their way across the internet to prove it.

As President-elect Trump selects the people who’ll help him govern, observers are picking through the rubble trying to understand the forces behind a Republican victory. Here our concern is news-media accuracy and ethics.

Let’s start with something basic. What is fake news?

“Pure fiction,” says Jackie Spinner, assistant professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago, appearing on WTTW-Channel 11 in Chicago in a “Chicago Tonight” program devoted to separating fact from fiction in internet news feeds.

“It’s something made up,” adds Spinner. “It’s fake.”

But as the WTTW program points out, “fake news is on the rise, and it’s real news.” Some false reports, such as campaign endorsements from Pope Francis, survived many a news cycle.
Continue reading Fake News Trumps True News

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Digital Journalism: Another Failed Business Model?

H. Iris Chyi.
University of Texas media researcher H. Iris Chyi says heavy shift to digital news was a mistake. Chyi photo.

By Casey Bukro

Here’s an interesting idea: The rush of newspaper management from print to digital journalism was a terrible mistake.

Cyber media was supposed to be the next big thing, the answer to plummeting circulation, advertising and readership. Soon it became clear that digital journalism got off on the wrong foot with a “bad business model,” this new way to get the news for free. That set an expectation of reluctance to pay for it.

“What if almost the entire newspaper industry got it wrong?” asks Jack Shafer on Politico.com.  He is Politico’s senior media writer.

“What if, in the mad dash two decades ago to repurpose and extend editorial content onto the web, editors and publishers made a colossal business blunder that wasted hundreds of millions of dollars? What if the industry should have stuck with its strengths–the print editions where the vast majority of their readers still reside and where the overwhelming majority of advertising and subscription revenue come from–instead of chasing the online chimera?”

Fascinating speculation, and Shafer admits it’s a contrarian viewpoint, but he bases it on a study of 51 U.S. newspapers by two University of Texas researchers, H. Iris Chyi and Ori Tenenboim. They published a paper in Journalism Practice, an academic journal.

That paper, said Shafer, “cracks open the watchwords of the newspaper industry to make a convincing case that the tech-heavy web strategy pursued by most papers has been a bust.” That strategy, Shafer adds, “has been a losing proposition for most newspapers.”

Come to think of it, history shows an “all eggs in one basket” strategy can lead to disappointment. The U.S. economy’s reliance on petroleum led to high costs and disruptions by unreliable sources. The electric power industry relied heavily on coal until air pollution and other problems forced the industry to turn to alternative and cleaner energy sources, like solar power. Nuclear power was heralded as the technology that would turn deserts green, but safety concerns derailed some of those hopes.

Continue reading Digital Journalism: Another Failed Business Model?

Mother Jones Goes Undercover

My Four Months as a Prison Guard
Mother Jones senior reporter Shane Bauer took a job at a state prison run by Corrections Corporation of America. His account is in the July-August 2016 issue.

By Casey Bukro

Just when you think an ethics issue has been put to rest, a Mother Jones magazine reporter spends four months working undercover as a guard at a corporate-run prison in Louisiana.

“I took a $9 an hour job as a private prison guard in Louisiana,” reporter Shane Bauer wrote in a 35,000 word, six-part report accompanied by two sidebar reports and an editor’s note, plus video.

“I saw stabbings, an escape and prisoners and guards struggling to survive,” Bauer wrote.

The publication’s editor-in-chief, Clara Jeffery, wrote that legal intimidation makes investigations of prisons rare, but “it’s time for journalists to reclaim our roots.” She pointed to an 1887 undercover investigation of a women’s mental asylum by New York World reporter Nellie Bly as an early example of the kind of work journalists should be doing. It triggered reforms.

It’s fair to say undercover reporting has fallen into disfavor these days because it often depends on deception, for which a publication can be sued. And it can make journalists look like liars.

“Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public,” says the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics.

Continue reading Mother Jones Goes Undercover

Ombudsman: ‘Loneliest Job in the Newsroom’

Kathy English
Kathy English, Toronto Star public editor (Toronto Star photo by Lucas Oleniuk)

By Casey Bukro

I’m a sucker for stories about news ombudsmen, or public editors or readers representatives, even though they are branded these days. I can’t help myself. It’s a compulsion, an addiction.

Think about it: An ombudsman might walk up to the top boss and tell him he’s wrong. She might pick through the details of a complicated story, then defend a reporter for doing a thankless, difficult or even dangerous job, or discover that a reporter did not go far enough to find the truth, and then say so publicly.

It’s almost heroic.

I suppose I also admire ombudsmen because what they do is so idealistic: speaking up without fear or favor, letting the chips fall where they may.

Maybe that’s why there are only about 20 of them working at American news outlets today, according to a Politico article, “The State of the Ombudsman in 2015.” That’s about half as many as a decade ago, according to USA Today.

Still, ombudsmen in the U.S. and elsewhere trudge on.

Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star in Canada, recently wrote an article titled, “So what does the public editor do?” Readers had asked her to explain her job, which she’s done for eight years.

Continue reading Ombudsman: ‘Loneliest Job in the Newsroom’

Florida Student Blows Whistle on Boca Raton Plagiarist

By Casey Bukro

Journalism student Emily Bloch thought she saw something familiar while reading a story in the Boca Raton Tribune. It looked like something she had written, exactly the way she had written it.

Turned out it was a case of plagiarism, for which the Tribune writer was fired. He had copied material Bloch had written for the Florida Atlantic University student newspaper, the University Press, about an alleged campus rape.

Students sometimes are accused of copying material written by professional journalists, but in this case the professional journalist copied material written by a student. The case was reported by New Times Broward-Palm Beach.

Plagiarism often is a career-killing offense in journalism, although not always.

A Columbia Journalism Review report found that punishment for plagiarism falls in an grey area “ranging from severe to virtually nothing even for major offenses.”

It’s an editor’s decision, one that takes a writer’s talents and past performance into consideration. In other words, how badly does an editor need that writer or how easily could that writer be replaced? And, it is no secret that editors sometimes have favorites, known among staffers as “friends of the editor’s” or FOEs.

Editors might look for a pattern of plagiarism before taking disciplinary steps.

In these days of the Internet, much is made of the ease with which text can be stolen or copied and pasted. Cut-and-paste is a dangerous practice. The only good case for it is for citing a direct quote accurately. It is commonly used in the drafting stage, but a writer might forget to recast the material.

Equally easy is finding online plagiarism checkers, or reports that list the latest examples of plagiarism, or plagiarism “hit lists” of famous journalists gone wrong. Where are they now? For the most part, out of journalism.

At The New York Times a reporter, Jayson Blair, lost his job for plagiarism, and another, Maureen Dowd, didn’t.

They were named in a Plagiarism Today report by Jonathan Bailey called “5 Famous Plagiarists: Where Are They Now?”

The so-called “celebrity plagiarists,” for the most part, “seemed to land on their feet,” according to Bailey.

In its report on top 10 cases of plagiarism and attribution, Media Ethics in 2012 named Jonah Lehrer, formerly of The New Yorker, as its No. 1 plagiarist for plagiarizing himself.

“We’re putting him on our top plagiarist list since being busted for self-plagiarism led to his downfall,” said writer Sydney Smith. How do you plagiarize yourself, you might ask?

Lehrer’s blogs duplicated content he previously published for other outlets. He also made up quotes attributed to Bob Dylan.

The Poynter Institute also published a roundup of plagiarism and fabrication cases, by Mallary Jean Tenore, showing “the range of actions news organizations have taken and some of the factors they’ve considered when making these decisions.”

Plagiarism is a slippery slope. One might argue that plagiarism could be committed by accident. But the profiles of serial plagiarists show that it’s usually not a one-time mistake. It’s a choice.

In most cases, it becomes a pattern or a bad habit, perhaps because it seems so easy. And because some get away with it for some time, they might think they can get away with it indefinitely.

It’s an illusion. One of the benefits of the Internet are the millions of eyes on our words, including print editions. Many people are voracious readers of news reports, foreign and domestic. They recognize when identical paragraphs appear in two or more publications, and don’t hesitate telling editors.

A reader once notified the Chicago Tribune that one of its stories bore an uncanny resemblance to a story in the Jerusalem Post. An investigation proved that he was right. A Tribune reporter had taken text from the Post, a publication half a world away from Chicago.

Astute readers are unpaid “copy cops,” and anyone who works for a publication knows what I mean. They are really good at catching errors, among other things, and enjoy playing “gotcha.”

I think it’s fair to say the industry standard is zero tolerance for plagiarism. Penalties can be harsh even for a single infraction.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics flatly says: “Never plagiarize. Always attribute.”

I suppose I fall into the zero tolerance camp for plagiarism, because zero means zero. Otherwise, journalists can argue over how much is allowed and how much is not.

My intolerance dates from my earliest days of writing the 1973 version of the SPJ code of ethics. Some ethics committee members argued for a little of this, and a little of that. It was hard to define how much is a little, or too much.

So I decided that it’s best to draw a bright line. No means no, and there is no quibble room to haggle over.

Journalists are terrible hagglers and nit-pickers. The result is a long, drawn-out process that sometimes does not reach a conclusion or a consensus. Get a room full of journalists and they will argue over all the possibilities and change the punctuation. There is a point at which that is not productive. Best to draw bright lines.

Plagiarism is theft. It can’t be allowed.

 

Rape, Cosby and UVA

A story in Rolling Stone featured the alleged gang rape of a University of Virginia student, launching calls for reform and more attention to the issue of sexual assaults on campus. Recent reporting by the Washington Post, however, has raised doubts about the veracity of the story.
Fraternity house named in alleged rapes (Ryan M. Kelly, The Daily Progress/AP file)

How aggressively did journalists pursue the facts?

By Casey Bukro

Rape became big news with allegations against Comedian Bill Cosby and an explosive Rolling Stone story describing a gang rape of a co-ed at a fraternity house on the University of Virginia campus, for which editors later apologized for “discrepancies.”

Both rape stories raised questions about how journalism works in America and whether it can be trusted.

Where were the editors while these stories were being covered? Tough editors ask tough questions, and demand answers from their own reporters about how they got the story and whether it’s supported by hard investigation.

Media are accused of failing to dig into serial rape accusations over decades against Cosby, who was seen as a popular father figure as he was portrayed on his television show.

About 20 women have accused Cosby of drugging them, and often raping them. But he has not answered to what he calls “innuendos.” Some of the accusers have been challenged. Cosby’s most recent comment is that his wife is dealing well with the controversy.

Pushing back, Cosby’s lawyer accuses a reporter of deception, and his wife, Camille, contends the media failed to take a close look at her husband’s accusers.

The Rolling Stone gang rape story by Sabrina Rubin Erdely is based on a single source, a woman identified only as “Jackie,” who claimed she was lured to a 2012 fraternity party by a man named “Drew,” and raped by seven men. The Washington Post described the story.

Good reporting usually involves getting all sides of the story. Erdely admitted that she made a deal with Jackie that no attempt would be made to find and interview anyone else involved in the alleged rape, or knew about it.  And her editors allowed her to get away with a violation of a basic tenet of good reporting – getting multiple sources to verify the accuracy of the story

The editors allowed this unusual dispensation from careful reporting because the story was “sensitive.” Yes, rape is a sensitive issue, but not a reason to suspend professional standards in reporting. Sensitive stories require more careful reporting, not less.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics urges caution in reporting sex crimes.

The story was widely reported and put a spotlight on campus rape. Then came questions about its accuracy. The accused fraternity had no party on the night the rape allegedly happened, and issued a statement saying that sexual assault was not “part of our pledging or initiation process.” It appeared to be fabricated and continues to be called into question from many sources.

Media followed the story as a lesson in journalism and ethics. A defamation suit against Rolling Stone is a possibility.

Rolling Stone’s managing editor, Will Dana, issued a statement:  “In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.”

Other media noticed the discrepancies. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Columnist Jack Kelly calls the story “an unforgivable breach of journalism ethics” and thinks the fraternity house should sue Erdely and Rolling Stone for libel.

Rolling Stone editors believed Jackie was credible, according to Leslie Loftis in the Columbia Journalism Review,  because of a bias – a willingness to believe Jackie because “everyone knows that there is an epidemic of rape on campuses around the country….”

It’s what you know, or want to believe, that can set a trap.

The editors at the Washington Post wanted to believe one of their bright and upcoming reporters, Janet Cooke. She wrote “Jimmy’s World,” a story about an 8-year-old heroin addict in a family of addicts. Narcotics addiction was a big issue in 1980.

That story was so good, it won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981.

Then came the questions. A Washington Post editor asked Cooke to get in a car and go with him to identify where Jimmy lived. They drove around and could find no Jimmy. Cooke eventually admitted she invented Jimmy.

Cooke said the Post’s high-pressure newsroom corrupted her judgement. She said she had heard about somebody like Jimmy. She decided to write the story, based on anonymous sources, to satisfy her editors, she said.

The Post’s ombudsman wrote a long critique on the “Jimmy’s World” story, and found that the editors bore heavy responsibility, adding that “everybody who touched this journalistic felony was wrong.”

Good editors are supposed to do the hard work of keeping stories honest.

“Don’t tell me what you think, chum. Tell me what you know!” said a fabled, crusty editor at the former City News Bureau of Chicago, once called the Devils Island of Journalism. He grilled his reporters as vigorously as he expected his reporters to grill their sources.

Cosby: When The Media Watchdogs Bark, Or Not

 

By Casey Bukro

The serial rape allegations against Comedian Bill Cosby have reached the stage where people are asking why the media failed to report them when they happened.

It’s complicated and messy, in part because Cosby denies the allegations and calls them “innuendos” from the distant past which he will not dignify with a response.

The public often blames the media for hounding celebrities, sometimes to the point of ruining their reputations. Other times, the media are accused of promoting popular celebrities to the point of being a cheering section.

Both true.

It could be argued that Cosby got the cheering section treatment for decades. But now that’s changing and causes observers to wonder if media watchdogs failed, professionally and ethically.

Especially troubling are media reports that, in exchange for an exclusive interview, Cosby made a deal with the National Enquirer to delay a story about a new rape accusation while the civil suit in another rape case was going on. That strikes to the heart of media responsibility to report the facts, and whether the media did that in Cosby’s case.

The Columbia Journalism Review  says the press is responsible for ignoring Cosby rape allegations, pointing out that People Magazine published an article in 2006 about five women who accused him of rape.

About 20 women have accused Cosby of assaults, most dating to the 1970s and 1980s.

From a wider perspective, rape is one of those issues where the media tend to reflect societal attitudes, which includes the issue of privacy for both public and private figures. And all of that is changing fast. Media always had a responsibility to lead public opinion, not just follow it.

Not so long ago reporters ignored the private peccadillos of powerful figures in the belief that what they did in private was their business, not the public’s. Their silence was called “a gentleman’s agreement.”

Think President John F. Kennedy and President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Kennedy was a known cavorter, but the White House press corps ignored it, in part to stay in the president’s good graces.

Rumor had it that Eisenhower had an affair with his war-time chauffeur, Kay Summersby, who confirmed it in 1975 in a memoir titled “Past Forgetting: My Love Affair with Dwight D. Eisenhower,” before she died. The rumors stayed mostly under wraps until the memoir appeared.

But rape is far more complicated. In the past, police departments sometimes minimized it as a he said/she said sort of thing. Women were sometimes twice victimized by rape and then accused of bringing it upon themselves. Sometimes they were ashamed to talk about it, especially when alcohol was involved.

It is a topic coming out of the shadows as women are more inclined to talk about it, and the media more inclined to report on it partly as a result of that openness and changing social views. That comes at a time when other sensitive issues, such as gay rights and abortion, are discussed more openly.

The Cosby accusations  stretch over decades, enough time to show how differently the issue is treated, then and now.

The case against Cosby snowballed recently after supermodel Janice Dickinson publicly accused the entertainer of drugging then raping her in 1982 when she met with him, hoping he would help advance her career. Dickinson is one of about 20 women who tell similar stories, one of whom was 15 years old at the time.

Nostalgia is another time-related thing.

Entertainment is a fantasy, just as Cosby as Cliff Huxtable was a fantasy. But it was a fantasy that the public desperately wanted to believe, wrote Vox.com’s Amanda Taub. They wanted to keep happy childhood memories of the Cosby show.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vanishing Facts, Finding Truth

 

By Casey Bukro

Looks like this new generation of online and social media writers don’t care much about fact-checking, favoring speed over accuracy.

Though that might be obvious from reading  the internet, a survey by the Dutch company ING seems to prove the point.

It found that only 20 percent of international journalists questioned bothered to check their facts before publishing.

Forty-five percent of them “publish as soon as possible and correct later,” according to the report.

This is further proof of online journalism’s faith in the self-correcting nature of the internet. Report it fast and report it first, they say. Corrections can come later.

This is a far cry from that old-school Chicago journalism motto: If your mother says she loves you, check it out. It was the ultimate in fact-checking, applied to anything and everything. The rule was to get it right the first time.

More in keeping with a different sort of saying: Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Another ING survey finding: Sixty percent of the international journalists said they felt less constrained by journalism standards when reporting in social media. Though they expressed low regard for the accuracy of social media, 50 percent said much of their news tips and information come from social media.

They agree social media is an informational trash bin, but dipping into that bin is addictive.

Angela Wascheck in “10,000 words” described the ING survey.

The ING report comes on the heels of a Columbia Journalism Review story on the values of modern-day newsrooms, entitled “Who Cares If It’s True?”

“In the newsrooms of this moment, with growing agreement that audiences want information that is true, journalists are coming together around the same basic questions: When is information sufficiently baked to be served up as accurate? Who decides? Should there be rules, or just ideals? Is it enough merely to try to be right eventually?”

The author, Marc Fisher, traces the shoot-from-the-hip history of some digital newsrooms, their differences with old-school journalism, and the growing recognition of the value of accuracy and credibility — even in social media.

It began with the digital journalists’ belief that truth would emerge through open trial and error. Transparency was the answer. If you don’t know, just say so.

But that could be changing.

Fisher cites one high-flying digital operation that is “embracing the ultimate symbol of the overstuffed print newsrooms of the pre-digital past.” It is hiring copy editors.

In another, Fisher finds a plan “to marry print traditions of completeness, verification and authority with the digital imperatives for speed and connection with the audience’s interest.”

Battles between the two camps still exist, but Fisher quotes a source who says conflicts diminish “as digital people have moved into leadership roles, and as everyone learned that aggregation can only take you so far, and as people from both backgrounds learn that it’s better to be second than wrong.”

 

 

 

Paying For The News in South Africa

By Casey Bukro

Journalism in one form another is going on all across the world.

Sometimes it’s not quite recognizable as we in the United States know it. Makes you think.

In South Africa, the grieving parents of slain model Reeva Steenkamp hired a British agency to manage media organizations that will pay the Steenkamps a fee for their story.

That’s called checkbook journalism, and considered unethical. The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics urges journalists to “avoid bidding for news.”

Barry and June Steenkamp said they resorted to the fee-for-information approach because they were “overwhelmed” by the number of media organizations across the world that wanted interviews.

The Cape Argus reported that while many look askance at the practice, “there is sympathy for those caught in the middle of of a so-called media circus and who succumb to the pressures of interacting with journalists seeking an exclusive interview.”

Olympic athlete and boyfriend Oscar Pistorius was charged in Steenkamp’s death.

Paying for news was at the root of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. phone hacking and bribery scandals.

In that case, a culture of checkbook journalism led to bribery charges against four former News Corp. journalists.  News Corp. also closed its News of the World in the wake of a phone hacking scandal.

The Columbia Journalism Review calls checkbook journalism a “slippery slope.”